The Home Opener is hands down the biggest baseball day of the year in each Major League city. No matter the town, the game is sold out1. It is the one time that every team play in front of a house packed full of their own fans. Bunting is all around the park. Excitement is in the air. Balloons. It is just flat out American: Hot dogs, cracker jacks, peanuts, beer, and Opening Day baseball.
I am fortunate enough to have grown up in a family where baseball was king. My father would take me out of school for the Home Opener every year. My older brother, my pops, and I would be down at the old Municipal Stadium for that game rain or shine—it was a rite of passage in the Dery household. On Opening Day, we would be surrounded by fans in our upper deck seats on the third base side. A week later, we would have the entire section to ourselves, but man was Opening Day glorious. It didn’t matter if Jerry Browne was playing second or the speedy Miguel Dilone was in center field, we were just happy that baseball was back.
The days of seeing bad teams in a horrible stadium came to an end in 1994. Twenty years ago today, April 4, 1994, the first Opening Day in the history of the beautifully constructed Jacobs Field was played. I remember it like it was yesterday.
I was a Senior in High School and my brother was a Junior in College. We sat in what would become our custom family seats for the next 10 years when the four of us were all together. In section 162 row K was my dad, as always, on the aisle. My mother was next to him, followed by my brother, and finally me. (This was the same configuration we sat in for Browns games.) The sun was big and bright all day long. It was hard to concentrate on the actual game because we were all so in awe of our new surroundings. We were actually in this particular park in our city? We were this close to the action and not seemingly miles away from the field? The seats were actually turned towards the plate? There were cup holders? A gigantic scoreboard with an actual video screen? The 19-foot “mini-monster” in left field?
My father, ever the baseball purist, refused to go to the “dress rehearsal” exhibition game two days prior because he wanted to go in fresh, like Frank Costanza with Firestorm. Here was a man who walked in and grinned from ear to ear at the sites and sounds of this packed stadium. It was like he was reborn as a baseball fan again. He had spent the first 52 tears of his life watching the National Pastime at the “Mistake By the Lake” which was a much worse place to see baseball than football. It was cavernous and 95% of the time, close to empty. I am 38 and I vividly remember baseball at Municipal Stadium—it was a dreadful place no matter where you were seated. Those days were now long gone, and my dad couldn’t have been happier.
We arrived early, not wanting to miss a thing and making sure we had our bearings. It was brisk but the sun helped warmed us. I rocked my new Tribe “Script I” hat backwards and sat in my seat to watch the pagentry unfold. President Bill Clinton tossed out the first pitch ((He wopuld later fly to Charlotte to watch his beloved Arkansas Razorbacks win the NCAA Basketball title that night.)). Balloons filled the sky. Rookie outfielder Manny Ramirez went to the wrong end of the receiving line when his announced was with the rest of the team2. The crowd ate it all up with a spoon.
Nobody in that stadium had any idea of what was to come that day, that season, or for the next eight seasons which would later be remembered in Cleveland as “The Era of Champions.”
You remember, this was a young Indians team who had just finished 6th in the old AL East, winning just 76 games. But not only was it a new era in Cleveland, it was a who new situation in the game of baseball. 1994 was the first year of the three division and Wild Card format. The Tribe moved away from the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Baltimore Orioles, and took up shop with teams more their speed in the newly formed AL Central. The expectation was that the Tribe would be better, but it wasn’t known exactly how much.
“When I first saw Jacobs Field a few days before the 1994 season opener, it knocked my socks off,” said legendary Tribe shortstop Omar Vizquel. “Everything was first class…I felt as if I had died and gone to Cooperstown.”
With a new stadium and excitement surrounding the ballclub, veterans Eddie Murray, Dennis Martinez, and Jack Morris joined the fun. The core group of young hitters was just beginning to emerge. But on that day, they had to face one of the toughest pitchers in the game, Randy Johnson. The Big Unit and his Seattle Mariners were the first team to try and tackle the architectural beauty on the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.
The place was jumping when El Presidente fired a strike past Seattle’s Rich Amaral for the first pitch in the history of the new park. That electricity however was quickly short circuited when Martinez loaded the bases with one out when he hit Edgar Martinez and then walked both Ken Griffey Jr. and Jay Buhner. Eric Anthony’s sacrifice fly accounted for the game’s (and stadium’s) first run. Anthony’s solo homer in the third took even more wind out of our collective sails. But what were two runs anyway? Nothing, right?
Except there was one problem for the Tribe. A big problem. A six-foot-10 problem named Randy Johnson.
“Only in Cleveland” was being heard everywhere inside of Jacobs Field when The Big Unit carried a no-hitter into the bottom of the eighth innng. The last pitcher to toss a no-no on Opening Day? None other than Tribe legend Bob Feller, who did so in 1940. Candy Maldonado led off the inning with a walk, Johnson’s fifth of the day. Then, it happened: Sandy Alomar Jr., the Tribe’s All-Star catcher singled to right, breaking up Johnson’s no-hit bid. Feller’s mark would hang for another year, and the 40,000 plus in attendance rose to their feet and finally had something to cheer about on the actual field of play. We had all been so happy just to be there, but we had to win this one, didn’t we?
Up stepped 22-year-old phenom right fielder named Manny Ramirez who at the time was still fighting Wayne Kirby for the regular gig. Seems insane to even think they were in a battle, but nevertheless that;s what was going on at the time. Manny did what Manny would do so many times the rest of his career—he came through. Ramirez’s double to left scored two and we all went from doom and gloom to pure jubilation now that we had ourselves a new ballgame at 2-2.
Naturally, Manny was picked off of second, a killer first out of the inning.
The game would remain tied and head into extra innings. As the game grew longer, my poor brother had to catch his flight back to Syracuse. There weren’t exactly lots of flight options from Cleveland to Syracuse 20 years ago and he hung on as long as he could.
In the top of the 10th, reliever Jose Mesa, not yet the Tribe closer, would come out for his second inning of work. Griffey got on board with an infield single and was bunted over to second by Buhner3. On came lefty Derek Lilliquist to face the three lefties due up: Anthony, Tino Martinez, and ex-Indian Reggie Jefferson, who was traded with shortstop Felix Fermin that offseason for a shortstop you may have heard of by the name of Omar Vizquel.
After a two-out walk to Martinez, Seattle Manager Lou Pinella pulled back Jefferson for right-handed outfielder Keith Mitchell. Manager Mike Hargrove stuck with Lilliquist despite having right-hander Eric Plunk ready in the pen and it burned him. Mitchell singled in Griffey.
It was at that point my brother and mother headed for the exits and Hopkins airport. Unfortunately for them, they would miss the birth of what was then referred to as “Jacobs Field Magic.”
In the bottom of the 10th, nobody (except for my brother and mother) had left. We all had to see how this multiple act play would draw to a close. With one out, Mariner reliever Bobby Ayala walked Ramirez. Hargove went to his bench, lifting Ramirez for a pinch runner in Kirby. He also gave a bat to 23-year-old Jim Thome, who sat in favor of Mark Lewis with The Big Unit on the mound. After Thome was announced, Pinella called for his lefty Kevin King. Our man The Thomenator greeted King rudely with a ringing double to right. Jeff Newman put the breaks on Kirby and held him at third. An intentional walk to Kenny Lofton loaded the bases for Vizquel.
At the time, I remember thinking to myself I have never been to a baseball game with this much drama, with this many people this invested. It was quite a departure from watching Ernie Camacho try and close out a save with 2,000 of my closest friends in a 78,000 seat monstrosity.
Vizquel’s fielder’s choice would tie the game 3-3 and on to the 11th we went. I was spent. We all were spent, but all I could think of was my brother in the car missing this.
After Eric Plunk retired the Mariners in order, the final act played out. With one out, the old crafty veteran Murray took King’s first pitch to the wall in center for a line shot double. Paul Sorrento’s fly out, which moved Murray to third, was out number two. Would we go longer? Could the 40,000 plus take much more drama? We weren’t used to this…yet.
With first base open and the lefty Kirby in the on deck circle, King intentionally walked Sandy. I loved Wayne Kirby. He was the perfect fourth outfielder for those teams in the mid-90s. Wayne was a smart, patient hitter with good hands. He got ahead of King in the count 3-1, then became a hero for a lifetime when he singled the other way for the first of many, many, walk off Indians wins inside of Jacobs/Progressive Field.
“The Jake,” as they called it the, exploded. Literally nobody knew what to do with themselves. We all spilled out into the streets of downtown Cleveland with the excitement of a big Browns Sunday win. Only this time, we didn’t just have seven or six or five home games left, there were 80 more to be played.
The 1994 home opener was literally the rebirth of baseball in Cleveland. The game had it all. The sun and the late afternoon shadows of the now famous “toothbrush” lights, a packed house, an amped up crowd, a nemesis fireballing pitcher, a comeback, another comeback, and a walk off winner.
“It was a script they couldn’t even have written in Hollywood,” said the late owner Dick Jacobs after that memorable 4-3 11 -inning win. “It couldn’t have been better. Our guys came through in exemplary fashion, which really made me happy for the folks in the community.
The players got it too. Right then and there.
“That first game atmosphere was really something,” said Tribe pitcher Charles Nagy. “We had never seen such excitement in Cleveland. Starting that day, we really couldn’t wait to get to the ballpark every day.”
The place may be 20 years old and in need of some updating, but nobody can ever take away those memories of the first Opening Day what came soon thereafter. Lets hope the weather holds up today and the 2014 Tribe can give those of us in attendance today some new memories we can talk about 20 years from now.